Recall in the section on adjectives that we can show various degrees of the descriptive qualities of adjectives:
hot plate (positive) hotter plate (comparative) hottest plate (superlative)
difficult task (positive) more difficult task (comparative) most difficult task (superlative)
Recall that to form the comparative, we either added the suffix ‑er to the adjective or preceded the adjective with the word more. For the superlative, we either added the suffix ‑est or preceded the adjective with the word most.
To decide which system to use for adjectives, we followed rules having to do with the number of syllables in the adjective. Very basically, one-syllable adjectives use ‑er and ‑est; some two-syllable adjectives use ‑er and ‑est, others use more and most, still others use either; three-syllable adjectives invariably use more and most.
Comparative State of Adverbs
Now, in our present study of adverbs, we confront the same issue: How do we show various degrees of the descriptive qualities imparted by adverbs? Answer? The same way. For the comparative state, sometimes we add ‑er and sometimes we use more.
Superlative State of Adverbs
For the superlative state, sometimes we add ‑est and sometimes we use most. Follow these guidelines to determine which technique you should use.
Syllable Rule for States of Adverbs
1. The Syllable Rule. One-syllable adverbs use ‑er and ‑est to form comparatives and superlatives.
Igor ran fast. Igor ran faster. Igor ran fastest.
‑ly Rule for States of Adverbs
2. The ‑ly Rule. Adverbs ending in ‑ly use more and most to form comparatives and superlatives.
Igor spoke succinctly. Igor spoke more succinctly. Igor spoke most succinctly.
Look-It-Up Rule for States of Adverbs
3. The Look-It-Up Rule. When in doubt, check the dictionary to find out, first, the proper form of the adverb and, second, its proper comparative and superlative forms.
The look-it-up rule requires some separate discussion. Before you try to form the correct comparative and superlative forms of an adverb, you must first figure out the correct form of the adverb. Which is it: You should write clearer or You should write more clearly?
At the North Grounds Exercise Center at the University of Virginia (where I used to go in a futile attempt to achieve some minimal level of physical fitness), one day I was checking the sign-up sheet for the exercise bikes. One student had written her name, but it was very hard to read. Another student had helpfully jotted down next to her name:
So I helpfully jotted down next to the student’s helpful advice:
“More clearly” . . . it’s an adverb.
(We wordsmiths are real pains in the neck.)
I later watched the helpful advisor when it came his turn on the exercise bike. He went to scratch off his name, saw my helpful advice, and looked around and around—suspiciously.
Previous: 3. Placing the Word “Only”
Next: Adverbs - Phrases and Clauses
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